A Brief History of Library Cats

Let’s talk about cats.

While not exactly a feature of libraries in the traditional sense, cats have been longtime friends of libraries and their staffs and patrons for over a thousand years. Seriously. Records of cats in libraries date back to the Middle Ages, when monasteries would keep cats to control the rat population that often chewed up valuable manuscripts housed in their walls. In fact, in the 19th century, the British government compensated libraries that housed cats, on the basis that they kept rodents away from books.

In modern times, library cats have become a fixture in popular culture. You can find plenty of mugs and tee shirts on Etsy and elsewhere sporting dual loves of cats and books. Perhaps the most famous real library cat was Dewey Readmore Books, who lived in Iowa’s Spencer Public Library for 19 years.

But, not everyone is thrilled with feline friends in the library. In recent years, library cats have come under fire from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), citing that their presence in libraries limits access for folks who are allergic to cats. However, removing cats from libraries, it turns out, is not a simple solution. Many library workers and patrons alike vehemently advocate for cats’ continued housing in libraries. There was even a Library Cat Society formed in the 1980s to defend cats in libraries.

One could argue that cats still serve a function in libraries in modern times beyond being fluffy and cute. Cats serve as a publicity and marketing strategy for many libraries, bringing in much needed revenue. Additionally, the presence of cats can have a calming effect on library workers and patrons, similar to that of a therapy animal.

What do you think? Are library cats an age old tradition worthy of being protected? Or is it time we rehouse these furry companions in less public spaces?

Photo by Lynda B on Unsplash

Mary Elizabeth Allen is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She holds a B.A. in Literature with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is also part of the team that creates http://www.queersiliconvalley.org. Her professional interests include the intersections between critical librarianship and social justice, the history of information sharing, and radical feminist scholarship.

Categories: self-care, Uncategorized

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3 replies

  1. I would absolutely love to have a library cat, but I’m part of a system and seeking out permission to to do so would be a bit too much trouble to compensate right now for one. And my particular location is closed on Sundays, so there’d be no on looking out for the cat and I don’t want a lonely cat. I do love the idea of a library cat though, and I think once patrons got used to having a cat around they would like them as well.

    Oh well, I’ll get my own cats to compensate 🙂

    Like

  2. What an interesting post! I serve as one of the editors of the American Library Association’s Library History Round Table blog: https://lhrtnews.wordpress.com/

    Would it be OK if I posted a link back to your post on our blog? I think readers would find it fascinating.

    Best,
    Brett Spencer
    Editor, LHRT News & Notes

    Like

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